The world famous Malemute Saloon is set to reopen today. The historic bar, located in Ester, Alaska, has been basically closed for the past 11 years. It would open for a month every summer to keep its liquor license, but otherwise, the Ester institution has kept its bat doors shuttered.
New ownership is gearing the Malemute and the adjacent Ester Gold Camp towards the locals, and tourists who are looking to get off the beaten path and not arrive by tour bus. Live music by local musicians and shows by other local artists are expected to be scheduled for daily events throughout the summer.
Ester is a uniquely Interior Alaskan community, and it is a trip back in time. Once a thriving gold camp, now it’s a very laid back community reveling in the Alaskan lifestyle. The Malemute, made famous in the poetry of Robert Service, has kept the memories of the gold rush era alive. When my Dad would visit, the Malemute was one of his favorite places to go.
Ester City traces its history back to the early 1900’s serving the small local mining claims. The Fairbanks Exploration Company moved in and enlarged the footprint, building the gold camp in 1936. Large scale mining ended in the Ester area in the 1950’s, but small claims are still being worked today in the area.
The gold camp then became a tourist resort and the Malemute Saloon was opened. The bar in the saloon was obtained from the Royal Alexandria Hotel in Dawson City. The building itself dates back to 1906.
As a local resident, I have to admit, I’m thrilled to see the Malemute and Gold Camp reopening.
Felice Pedroni left his small mountain village of Trignano, Italy in 1881. Upon landing in New York City, as a fresh immigrant, he changed his name to Felix Pedro. Pedro was 23 years old at the time.
From New York, he worked his way across the United States, eventually finding himself in Washington state. From there, Pedro migrated to the Yukon Territory. By 1898, Pedro was working the Forty-Mile Mining District in Alaska. He supposedly struck it big on Lost Creek with his partner, Tom Gilmore. Unfortunately, the creek retained the name “Lost Creek” for a reason. Gilmore & Pedro had to abandon the claim after its discovery, due to running out of provisions. They did mark the spot, but spent the next three years trying to find it again. They never did.
Felice Pedroni, aka Felix Pedro
As it often happens throughout history, the city of Fairbanks got its start due to happenstance, coincidence and a dose of pure luck.
Two things happened that drove the city’s founding. First: The banker, swindler and first mayor of Fairbanks, Elbridge Truman Barnette, booked passage on the sternwheeler Lavelle Young from St Michael, AK in August 1901. After hitting the shallows of Bates Rapids on the Tanana River, E.T. Barnette convince the Lavelle Young’s Captain Adams to try a shortcut up the Chena River. Well, everyone knows what they say about shortcuts. The sternwheeler ran into sandbars only 6 miles from the mouth of the Chena, and the Captain refused to go any further. Barnette, his wife Isabelle, his employees and all his cargo, were unceremoniously dropped off on the south bank of the river.
Captain Adams later was quoted as saying, “We left Barnette furious. His wife was weeping on the bank.”
Looking downstream on Pedro Creek
Second: Re-enter Felix Pedro and Tom Gilmore. The two miners were prospecting in the area, when they saw the smoke rising from what turned out to be the Lavelle Young. They came across Barnette and his predicament and promptly bought a year’s worth of supplies. Barnette could do little with winter closing in on him, so he built a log building that he named “Barnette’s Cache” and decided to stick it out until spring breakup.
On 22 July 1902, Pedro & Gilmore discovered gold in a small, unnamed creek north of Barnette’s Cache. The Fairbanks Gold Rush was on.
Barnette promptly gave up any idea of leaving the area. He named the new community “Chena City”, and by autumn, he was elected the recorder for the new mining district. Judge Wickersham, who had been appointed to the territory by President William McKinley, suggested renaming the community Fairbanks, after the up & coming Senator Charles Fairbanks of Indiana. Barnette agreed to do so, thinking it could gain favor for the town.
During the winter of 1902-03, as many as 1000 new miners came to Fairbanks from all over the globe. They were quickly disappointed to find that one could not mine the frozen creeks during an Interior Alaskan winter. Temperatures were regularly recorded in the -50F range that winter. Barnette made a fortune with his trading post monopoly, and by 1908, Fairbanks was the largest city in Alaska.
Felix Pedro Monument; Steese Hwy, Alaska
Felix Pedro died of what was believed to be a heart attack in 1910. He was 52. His partner at the time doubted the cause of death, believing that Pedro’s wife had poisoned him. Pedro’s body was shipped to San Francisco, and buried there. In 1972, Italy wanted Pedro back, so his body was exhumed, and reburied in Fanano. Before reburial however, an autopsy was performed, and hair samples concluded that Pedro, had indeed, been poisoned.
This past weekend, the city of Fairbanks celebrated Golden Days, the annual event recognizing Fairbanks’ golden start. The celebration is marked by parades, street fairs, a Felix Pedro look a like contest, and the running of the historic steam locomotive No.1. It fact, this year was No.1’s 120th birthday.
Today, a monument to Felix Pedro can be found along the Steese Highway north of Fairbanks. Across the highway is Pedro’s original mining claim on the creek that now carries his name. The claim is owned & operated by the Pioneers of Alaska, Igloos #4 & 8. It is open to the public; anyone can pan for gold in Pedro Creek.